Those were the days when Selections ruled the roost at School of Artillery Devlali. It was obvious skimming at the highest level of the Regiment of Artillery.
When we passed out of Indian Military Academy in 1982, we were forced to return our Blue Patrols for mere Rs 100 – all because the Artillery version had a red stripe on the trousers’ side which was half an inch thicker than what was provided by Kapoor & Co at the Indian Military Academy, Dehradun. While officers commissioned to all other arms/ services retained their Blue Patrols, we the Gunners had to return them to Kapoor & Co.
On joining Young Officers Course at School of Artillery, Devlali, every student officer had to get a new pair of Blue Patrol and winter ceremonial uniform or Service Dress (SD) stitched – costing over a thousand rupees those days- only from Selections. The reasons – obvious. A Second Lieutenant’s pay was less than a thousand rupees a month then.
Service Dress is the style of khaki serge dress uniform introduced by the British Army for use in the field from the early 1902, following the experiences of a number of imperial wars and conflicts, including the Second Boer War. The uniform was originally issued as a field uniform, later designated as SD. Variant of this uniform continues to be worn today, although only in a formal role, as No. 2 Pattern dress by the British Army. Indian Army too continued with a similar winter SD for the officers until 1990s. Today the Indian Army officers wear a similar uniform designated as Dress No. 5SD.
No. 1 Dress , sometimes referred to as ‘blues’ or ‘blue patrol,’ is a universal ceremonial uniform which is almost consistent throughout the British Army. For most regiments and corps, this No. 1 dress consists of a dark blue tunic and trousers. Different units are distinguished by the colouring of the cap, piping on the tunic and of the welts or stripes on the trousers, as well as badges and in certain Cavalry Regiments by the colour of the collar.
Indian Army Blue Patrol consists of a ‘bandgala’ tunic and a trouser. The shoulder pips are embroidered along with ranks on the coat except for armoured corps officers who wear a chain mail along with their ranks on the shoulders.
It was not until 1980 when Second Lieutenant SP Mudholkar filed a case in Bombay High Court against the forceful inclusion of a private firm in the Offices’ Mess Bills. In those days, Mess Bills of various messes at School of Artillery had a serial dedicated to Selections. You can well imagine as to the patronage Selections enjoyed from the highest levels of the Regiment of Artillery – mostly occupied by officers belonging to the Khlan.
By the time we went to Devlali to attend our Young Officers’ Course, Blue Patrol and SD procurement was done away with – thanks to the orders of Bombay High Court. But Selections appeared on the Mess Bills – luckily for us it remained at zero value.
Three years later, Lieutenant General Sood who was Commandant, School of Artillery, was appointed the Director General of Artillery – and away went Selections. The ‘baby’ of the erstwhile higher-ups of Regiment of Artillery was thrown out with the tub, water, soap, and loofah to land in Devlali market.
While commanding our Regiment – 125 Surveillance and Target Acquisition (SATA) Regiment, I attended office mostly on Friday afternoons. That was when I signed those official documents which required the Commanding Officer’s (CO) signatures like the Daily Parade State.
I was a single parent CO with Marina having migrated to Canada. Bringing up our two primary school going children, feeding them, sending them to school, ensuring that they did their homework, making them take bath, etc – all fell on my shoulders.
For the uninitiated, Daily Parade State is a large table giving out details of soldiers and officers authorised and posted to the Regiment and their daily whereabouts. This report is compiled daily by the Regiment/ Battery Havildar (Sergeant) Major (RHM/ BHM) the previous evening, showing the whereabouts of the soldiers as of the next morning at 8 AM.
Daily Parade State in the Regiment and Batteries is compiled by the Detail Master. He is the understudy to the RHM/ BHM and is a soldier with good handwriting and skill at mental maths. He provides all secretarial help to the RHM/ BHM. Battery Detail Masters prepare the Parade State of the Battery in the evening and hand it over to the Regimental Detail Master, who compiles the Regimental Parade State.
Our Regiment was then a cooperating unit with the School of Artillery, Devlali with a lot of station commitments and training commitments – called Range Detail. Unlike at many Schools of Instructions of the Indian Army, at School of Artillery, the student officers/ soldiers do not draw the equipment or ammunition and they do not clean/ maintain the equipment. It is the duty of the cooperating Regiments to provide the same. The details of manpower and equipment to be provided along with administrative details like pitching of tents, preparation of the Observation Posts, etc are given out a week prior to the beginning of the month. Thus, all soldiers are well aware of the commitments and duties.
We were always short of manpower as the soldiers had to avail their leave too. Our Section/ Platoon Commanders always managed the show – often with the radio operator or driver doubling up as radar operator or surveyor and so on. Clerks were well utilised as radio operators and surveyors or to assist the chefs in the kitchen, so were the tradesmen. Even the Religious Teacher was not spared.
Failure or a short-fall of the Range Detail meant the CO being summoned by the General – the Commandant, School of Artillery. Our RHM and BHMs ensured that all Range Details were executed well. They had their own methodology to deal with shortcomings. Whatever it was, I was never summoned by the General.
Every morning, the BHMs presented their Parade State to their Battery Commander while the RHM presented the same to the Adjutant and then to the Second-in-Command, finally to the CO. The Daily Parade state is an auditable document to account for ration drawn from the Supply Depot for the soldiers. Hence, it is mandatory for the CO to sign it.
Three months into command, RHM Kaptan Singh summoned all his courage and asked “Sir, how come you do not ask any question while you sign the Parade State? You tell me to turn the pages and place my finger where you are to sign. You do not even look at it.”
“Why this question now?” I asked, knowing the answer well.
“Your predecessor used to grill me for over ten minutes every morning about various figures in the Parade State like number of soldiers on leave, soldiers on various out-station duties, etc. I know that you know about every soldier,” RHM Kaptan Singh explained.
‘Thank God! You had to suffer this agony for only ten minutes; I had to over 30 minutes,’ I thought.
My mind raced back to my Battery Commander days. Then also, I hardly paid any attention to the figures reflected on the Parade State, but our CO wasn’t so. He believed that every figure reflected on the Parade State was the gospel truth.
He summoned each Battery Commander and questioned about the number of soldiers on leave or on out-station details, etc and I used to rattle out some numbers. Then he summoned our BHM and asked the very same question. What a pathetic example of command!
Our BHM’s figures never tallied with mine and the 30-minute ordeal ended with our CO’s remark “You do not know what is happening in your Battery.” This continued everyday, and my figures never matched our BHMs. Other Battery Commanders matched their figures with their BHM’s in the morning prior to being summoned by our CO. Luckily for me, I moved out of the Regiment in two months for the Staff Course.
Now I had to justify my blind signing of the Parade State to RHM Kaptan Singh.
“This document is a proverbial Elephant’s Teeth for show only. This Parade state was prepared by your Detail Master the previous evening giving out the likely state of all personnel of our Regiment including me the next morning. He put in herculean efforts and with a lot of erasing and rewriting, managed to tally all the figures. If this is accurate, then your Detail Master must be a genius and hell of a Prediction Master. Last evening, I did not know where I would be this morning. Hence these figures can never be accurate. If it is accurate, then the Detail Master must be sitting on my chair. Do you want me to grill you on it now?”
RHM Kaptan Singh passed his characteristic smile, saluted, and walked away fully convinced.
A Dosa is a thin pancake like a crepe originating from South India, made from a fermented batter of lentils and rice.
The paper-thin Dosa is the corrupted form of Dosa. In my childhood Amma made Dosa on a ten-inch dia stone girdle. It was thick – the least it was five times thicker lighter and spongier than its paper-thin cousin. These Dosas were characterised by the holes left by the steam evaporating on cooking from the batter.
I joined Sainik School Amaravathi Nagar (Tamil Nadu) in 1971 at the age of nine where Dosa was served twice a week – Sunday breakfast and Thursday diner. The Sunday Dosa was with Sambar and Chutney, but the Thursday Dinner was the best – rarest of rarest combination – Dosa with Chicken Masala Curry – one of the best combinations I have had in my life. Here too it was the thick and fluffy Dosa which combined well with the gravy.
My introduction to the paper-thin Dosa was at the National Defence Academy. It never tasted anywhere near what I had at home or at school. It was too crispy for my liking. I called it the ‘Corrupt version of the poor Dosa.’ Though corrupt, it was lapped up by the North Indians and the South Indians too followed suit and the thick and original Dosa disappeared from most South Indian restaurants and homes. Some restaurants now serve it as ‘Set Dosa.’
I recall an incident narrated by Veteran Colonel MA Mathai. After marriage, on settling in their first military abode in 1985, he and his wife Sainu decided to invite all officers of their Regiment for a Dosa Brunch. In the morning Sainu made Dosas the way her mother made them – thick and stout. Neither Captain Mathai nor the officers were too happy about it.
After our marriage, we established our first home at Devlali, Maharashtra in 1989. During our settling down days, Marina said she intended to make Dosa on the following Sunday and she inquired as to what I wanted with it. I asked for my most relished combination with Dosa – chicken masala curry. “What an unpalatable combination?” was Marina’s reply. I told her that the thick Dosa made on a granite griddle, served with chicken masala curry was the best combination for Dosa that I had ever had. She did not believe me until we relished it that Sunday evening.
During our Pan-India tour as part of the Long Gunnery Staff Course (LGSC) in 1990, at Jabalpur Railway Station, our coach was stationed adjacent to the main platform. After the industrial visits, while I was strolling on the railway platform in the evening, I came across tow young men from Kerala selling Dosas. They narrated their story as to how they came to Jabalpur and established their business.
The two unemployed high-school graduate lads landed at Jabalpur on the recommendation of a close relative who was employed with the Ordnance Factory. They searched for a job and joined the restaurant on the railway platform as dishwashers. Few months into their work, the restaurant owner was impressed with their dedication and asked them “Can you make Dosas? There is a lot of demand for it. There are no good Dosa vends in town.” They took the bait.
The two men travelled to Kerala to return with a heavy grinder, girdles and other utensils needed to make Dosa. They commenced their Dosa selling in the restaurant and soon the place became a favourite haunt of the powerful, wealthy and influential people of Jabalpur. The restaurant owner now came out with a new business model for them. “You sell your Dosas here and all the money is yours?”
Too tempting an offer to reject!! They again took the bait. They sold hundreds of Dosas every evening, collected the cash, went back to their home to soak the rice and lentil overnight. Next morning, they ground the rice and lentil and fermented it till evening. In the evening, they established their girdle on the platform, in front of the restaurant. People came in droves to buy Dosas. Many sent their tiffin carriers for home delivery.
The biggest question in their minds was “Why did the owner allow us to sell Dosas and take all the money?”
A month into the new venture, they gathered enough courage to ask the question to the restaurant owner. “Customers who buy Dosas from you buy coffee too. I sell over a hundred coffee every evening and I make a Rupee on every coffee. “
The restaurant owner did not kill the geese that laid golden eggs for him, he nurtured them!!!!
On taking over command of our Regiment in June 2002, we were deployed in our operational area in Rajasthan, ready to be launched into battle any time. The mercury tipped many days over 40°C and the Regiment had been there since the dawn of the New Year.
The entire Regiment was living in tents with the Commanding Officer (CO) provided with a much more spacious and larger tent. The other luxury the CO enjoyed was a desert cooler in the tent and the Second-in-Command (2IC) too had this luxury. A 5kW generator meant for the workshop powered the lights, fans and desert coolers from 9 AM to 2 PM and then from 7 PM to 10 PM.
That was when I realised that the dreams and plans I had in mind to be executed on taking over command had to be kept in abeyance as there weren’t adequate funds. The only money at my disposal was Rs 200000 from a fixed deposit that had matured. That wasn’t my money and if I used it, I had to make it up.
After working out the power requirement, it was decided to procure three 15kW generators and fifty desert coolers to equip every tent in the Regiment. Two Young Officers with a team of soldiers were deputed to purchase the same from Jodhpur, the nearest town. From that evening we had a well lit and well cooled township. My only worry was that I had spent most of the Regimental Fund.
That evening at the Officers’ Mess, I gave out my command policy. Anythingthat does not have a utility value to the Regiment in our operational area or for the families of our officers and soldiers at our permanent location must be disposed off. All funds, Regimental and others must be utilised towards the war efforts.
All Officers and soldiers were asked to propose anything they needed and I found they were too contented with what I gave them the very first day and wanted no more.
We procured two desktop computers to support my automation endeavours. Now I had to conserve all that was left with our Regimental Fund. The first step was to reduce stationary usage by automation and we succeeded to a great extent.
In November we were ordered to return to our permanent location at Devlali. I ordered that only one of the three generators to be carried along and the rest two and all fifty coolers to be sold off at 60% of their cost with the first priority for our soldiers. The coolers and generators were of no use to the Regiment at Devlali and would have turned into junk later. Our soldiers from Rajasthan picked up the entire lot and I recouped half the Regimental Fund I had spent.
The first project we executed was a washroom cleaning device based on the mobile cleaning unit employed by the Indian Railways to clean the toilets of the trains on the platform. Our soldiers designed and built it. Now every soldier could carry out janitorial duties and the Safaiwalas (Janitors) were available to accompany radar detachments, survey teams and also operate radio sets. They turned up smartly in their combat uniforms every morning walking with a swag with the radio set on their back and the operators pad in their hand.
Most of my time in the Regiment was spent at the Computer Cell. Whenever needed, I relieved at the soldiers’ washroom rather than using the washroom at my office. This ensured that all soldiers kept their washrooms spic and span.
Two weeks after landing at Devlali, Major General RS Jambusarwalla, our Divisional Commander visited us. I received him at the Regiment and he walked to the rear end of his car and ordered his driver to open the boot. There it was – a computer, a printer and a multimedia projector. That was the only time in my military career a visit by a senior officer began with a gift to the Regiment.
Two weeks later was the inspection by Lieutenant General GS Sihota, PVSM, AVSM, VrC, VM, the Army Commander, Southern Command and his proposal for other units to procure the software we had developed for Rs 10000 was a great boon. Now I had all the money at my disposal to implement all my ‘wild ideas.’
We were a SATA Battery being converted to a SATA Regiment. We did not have a JCOs’ Club, an important Regimental institution. Fighting many a battle with the Station Headquarters, we managed to get a near dilapidated building allotted as our JCOs’ Club. I summoned our SM and tasked him to get the building done up, procure furniture, crockery, cutlery, etc. I gave him a month’s time for executing the task with my final advice “It’s got to be better than our Officers’ Mess.” After a month our SM invited all officers for a cocktail at the JCOs’ Club for inauguration. The above image is the testimony to that day.
Our soldiers came up with a request for a multi-gym. SM Thangaswamy was tasked to execute the project with the assistance of other JCOs. They suggested procuring the equipment from Ambala as it would a cheaper option. I advised them to procure it locally from Nashik to ensure installation and warranty services.
Two weeks later SM Thnagswamy asked me about my availability to inaugurate the gym. I asked him to inaugurate immediately and make it available to our soldiers.
We automated our kitchen with flour kneader, freezers and coolers for storage of milk, meat and vegetables. We were allotted a ‘Steam Jacketed Cooking System’ for the soldiers’ kitchen procured from special funds under the Army Commander’s Special Financial Power. I did not want it to turn into an elephant’s teeth for show alone. How we extracted its full value, please read https://rejinces.net/2019/03/31/elephantteeth/.
I was lucky that I had a great lot of officers and soldiers who accepted me, supported my ideas and worked wholeheartedly to ensure fulfilment of all my dreams. I must sincerely thank all Officers, JCOs, NCOs and soldiers and a special high-five for our Subedar Major (SM) Thangaswamy who kept me in high spirits with his sense of humour.
Did I realise all the dreams I came with to command? It’s an emphaticYesand much more; all because of a great Regiment that I was lucky to command.
Listening to an interview of Brigadier General Ross Coffman of the US Army on military leadership, I was fascinated by his revelation that it was his father who too served the US Army was the one who instilled in him a duty to serve the nation, and to love the men and women who fought alongside. General Coffman narrated an incident with his father.
A close relative was skimming through the pages of his father’s album and came across some photographs of his father as the Platoon Commander with Sergeant Elvis Presley. He said “If you sell these photographs, you will earn huge money.”
When Elvis Presley turned 18 on January 8, 1953, he fulfilled his patriotic duty and legal obligation by registering for the US Army draft. At that time he was a rock and roll music sensation. Though the US Army offered Presley an option to enlist in Special Services to entertain the troops, he decided to serve as a regular soldier. This earned him the respect of his fellow soldiers and countrymen. Thus Presley became US Army Serial Number 53310761 and after his basic training was assigned to D Company of the Third Armored Division’s 1st Medium Tank Battalion. This took him to Germany on October 1, 1958 and he served with the Regiment until March 2, 1960. On January 20, 1960, Presley was promoted to the rank of Sergeant.
What impressed young Ross the most was his dad’s reply. “I love all the soldiers who served with me. My love for them will never be on sale.“
On assuming command of a Surveillance and Target Acquisition (SATA) Regiment at our operational area in Rajasthan during June 2002, where we were deployed to go into battle at any moment, I walked into our office and asked for the ‘Last Will and Testament’ of all soldiers. I realised that most were incomplete or inaccurate with respect to the name of the next of kin, spouse and children. When I inspected the documents of the clerks who were responsible for their preparation, I found the same glaring errors and omissions. Realising the gravity of the situation at the juncture when war clouds were looming, I decided to automate the personal documentation of our personnel, starting with the generation of the Last Will.
Having served throughout with a Medium Artillery Regiment, and on staff assignments, I had a very basic, broad based knowledge and exposure to the equipment and operational functioning of my new unit which was all about radars, surveillance equipment and survey. Achieving thorough proficiency in these subjects became my foremost priority. Therefore, my mornings were well spent on training with our soldiers on the equipment. By noon it was too warm for any worthwhile learning and I used the rest of the day to familiarise with the soldiers by interviewing them at my office. Please read https://rejinces.net/2015/12/28/firstmlname/
When I moved in to command, I had four boxes – two for my personal belongings and two housing my desktop computer, printer, scanner and various other accessories. My personal computer was the only functional computer in our Regiment then.
I began my automation project by creating a basic database comprised of the soldiers’ personal number, rank, name, next of kin, spouse and children. With each interview, the database expanded to include other relevant aspects. By the time I completed the first round of interviews, I had to conduct another round as I had more data to collect.
With the assistance of three soldiers, we captured most of the required data and I programmed it to ease various documentation aspects – Part II Orders, pay & allowances, promotions, qualifications, training schedules, nominations for Insurance & Provident Fund, leave availed and printing of relevant forms and certificates concerning every aspect of documentation pertaining to soldiers.
The interviews went on to the third round and our soldiers appeared to enjoy the experience. During one of the breaks while on a reconnaissance mission, my radio operator, Naik Ranjith, a good mimic, enacted a soldier’s expression on being summoned to the Commanding Officer’s (CO) tent for an interview. It commenced with the discomfiture of the soldier seated on a chair in front of the CO. Until then, soldiers always stood at attention in the CO’s office unless ordered to stand ‘at ease’. On being seated, he was served a cup of tea and to complicate the matter further, he was offered a biscuit! The soldier’s dilemma was, how he could drink the tea and eat the biscuit while answering the volley of questions fired at him by his CO. The seat in front of the CO’s table came to be named as the ‘hot seat’.
The ‘hot seat’ helped me to learn a lot about our soldiers and also to break the ice with them. Rather, it melted the ice altogether. At the end of this process, we had a robust database which could execute most documentation tasks at the click of a mouse. Our biggest achievement was that we could print all documents that were required to process the grant of pension to soldiers who were due to retire, running into over sixty pages, accurately, without errors, with the click of a mouse. It made the clerks redundant.
By the end of November 2002, we returned to our permanent location at Devlali as a cooperating unit of the School of Artillery. The news about automated functioning and other welfare measures instituted in our Regiment reached the ears of Commandant, School of Artillery. Two weeks later, the Commandant directed me to be prepared to conduct Lieutenant General GS Sihota, PVSM, AVSM, VrC, VM, the Army Commander, Southern Command, during the administrative inspection of the School of Artillery. I was tasked to conduct the General in our Regiment for thirty minutes after the briefing by the Commandant at his office.
General Sihota accompanied by the Commandant reached our Regiment and I straight away demonstrated the software and the automated office functioning. We also discussed various welfare measures that we had initiated in our Regiment. At the end of the discussion, the General asked me “If other Units of the Army would like to procure this software from you, how much would you expect?”
“Ten thousand rupees,” I replied.
“Why ten thousand?”
“This software has been designed for our Regiment. I need to work to customise it for others. I can provide it free of cost, but then, no CO would value it. Only those COs who sincerely value the importance of documentation of their personnel will spend money to procure the software.”
The Army Commander was convinced with my reply and he gave me the go ahead. We all left from our Regiment for lunch and the Commandant was happy that the administrative inspection of School of Artillery was concluded with the GOC-in-C’s visit to our Regiment. About a hundred units, mostly Artillery Regiments and a few Infantry Battalions procured the software from us.
The money from the software accumulated in our Regimental Fund Account. Our Second-in-Command, Maj Suresh approached me to say that it was my money as it was the fruit of my hard work. I refused to accept a penny though Suresh was adamant that I take at least 25%. I said:-
“I developed this software for our soldiers. I love our soldiers from the bottom of my heart. I cannot sell my love for our soldiers. All the money we earn from this software must go to them.”
The evening I handed over command at Devlali, I flew to Toronto from Mumbai. Having joined our Regiment with four boxes, I left the Regiment after a very fulfilling command tenure with two boxes, leaving behind my desktop computer which had dutifully served me for seven years.
Commanding Officers (CO) of all Artillery Regiments travel by a Jeep/ Gypsy which is identified by the alphabet ‘Z‘ painted on all its sides. Most other arms/ services have ‘COMMANDING OFFICER’ written in the front of the CO’s vehicle. Needless to say that it is the most decked up and mechanically fit vehicle of any unit, driven by the most competent and disciplined driver. It carries with it an air of sacred and infallible exclusivity.
Our unit was a cooperating unit of School of Artillery, Devlali. We had to provide equipment and soldiers for smooth conduct of training of students of various courses. This was at a time when I was a single parent CO as Marina had migrated to Canada by then. The responsibility of bringing up our children now rested solely on me.
My residence was about 400 m behind the unit with the Officers’ Mess in between. Thus I could walk to the unit or Officers’ Mess at any time and hardly ever used the Z.
One day our daughter Nidhi, a grade 6 student, returning from school asked, “Dad, are you a CO?“
“Yes,” I replied “What ‘s the matter?“
“Everyone in my class tells me that you cannot be a CO,” she said.
“But why?” I queried.
I was taken aback by her reason. “They say that if I am a CO’s daughter, I would be dropped at school on a Z and not be cycling down to school.” She replied quite innocently.
“OK. I am not a CO then. You continue to cycle to school,” I justified.
One morning I received a call from a senior Staff Officer at the School of Artillery Headquarters. His concern was that our Regimental officers travelled in jeeps while Colonels of Tactical and Field Wings – many approved as Brigadiers – were travelling on their scooters. It was not that our officers were travelling on Jeeps, even their ladies used it. Surely it was an eyesore for those Colonels who had commanded their regiments ‘well’; else they would not have been posted to School of Artillery.
I explained to this Staff Officer “When some of these Colonels were commanding their regiments, they had five Jeeps with them – one for the CO, one for his wife, one for his daughter, one for his son and one for his dog. I have only one and the rest are shared by other officers. It is my command and I will decide what to do with my jeeps and henceforth please keep away from my command functions.”
On a Saturday I was informed by our Adjutant that the in-laws of Captain Vikrant, who joined us just a week before, are in station.
“Then let us have a get together in the evening at the Officers’ Mess. Please invite them too,” I suggested. The CO’s mild suggestions are invariably directions to be implicitly followed.
During the evening get together I asked Captain Vikrant “What are you doing tomorrow? It’s a Sunday.”
“My in-laws want to visit Shirdi,” he replied.
“How are you going?” I enquired.
“I have booked seats in the School of Artillery bus leaving from the Club tomorrow morning.“
“When our officer’s parents or in-laws visit Shirdi, they take the Z. Havildar Suresh, my driver will report to you tomorrow morning.”
Hearing this our Quartermaster, Captain Subhash passed the customary instructions to Havildar Suresh to include carriage of adequate water, soft drinks, sandwiches and a spare jerrycan of petrol.
Sunday morning at five, I was quite rudely awoken by my telephone. It hardly ever rang unless there was some very very important information to be conveyed to the CO, which was indeed a rarity.
It was Captain Vikrant at the other end. “Good Morning Sir. Sorry to disturb you at this hour. Your vehicle is standing in front of my residence.”
“It’s there to take you all to Shirdi,” I confirmed.
“I thought you were not serious when you told me that,” he said, embarrassed and apologetic.
I shot off a volley of choicest profanities in my vocabulary ending with, “Now you take the vehicle to Shirdi and on Monday morning see me in my office.”
On Monday morning Major Suresh Babu, our Second-in-Command escorted Captain Vikrant to my office and said “Sir, please don’t get angry with him. He is only a week old in the unit. He is yet to know you.”
I looked at Captain Vikrant and he said “This is my second unit. Before this I served only in a Field Regiment for five years. There the Z was regarded as something holy, something of an institution. I have never travelled in a Z till now. That is why I called you early in the morning to reconfirm.“
I dismissed both with the words “The Z did not come as a dowry to me when I got married to the Regiment.“
The story of my romance with the Indian Railways is never complete without the story of the military special. Indian Railways and the military have a close and intimate bonding. The military refer to the special coaches as ‘rolling stock’ and the engine simply as ‘power’. The Military has its own ‘Movement Control Organisation’ (MCO) with its personnel closely integrated with the railways and located at important railway stations/ headquarters.
This special relationship goes back to the very formation of Indian Railways. One of the main reasons for establishing the railway network was to provide an effective and trustworthy method of transporting large amount of troops from one part of the country to another. The colonial masters found this as an imperative requirement, which enabled the government of the day to maintain control over the vast lands it governed.
Indian Railways run these Military Special trains all the time. These trains move both in peace and in times war. Some of these trains are freighters only, while others have accommodation for personnel as well. Some military specials carry armed forces personnel for aid to civil authorities, such as earthquake or flood-relief work. Some Military Special trains have rakes formed totally by special ‘Military’ coaches in their own distinctive greens while others have rakes formed by ‘normal’ Indian Railway coaches. Some movements get decided suddenly (such as due to natural or man-made disasters), while other movements are planned well in advance – as per the strategic relocations of operational units of Indian armed forces. The mobilisation plan of military units and formations are made in close coordination with Indian Railways.
I had my first experience of travelling with our Regiment by a military special in 1983, a move from Delhi by a meter gauge military special for firing practice of 130mm medium guns at Pokhran Ranges in Rajasthan. We had to move to Pokharan as that was the only Field Firing Range with the Indian Army that offered 30 square km of uninhabited area to fire the guns over 27 km. Railway lines in Rajasthan then were all meter gauge. Indian Railways today operate mostly on broad gauge. The gauge of the railway track is the distance between the inner sides of two tracks. For broad gauge it is 1676 mm (5 ft 6 in) and for meter gauge it is one meter.
A 24 wagon rake for loading of the medium guns – MBFU – (M – Meter Gauge, B – Bogie Wagon, FU – Well Wagon) was placed at the military siding ramp at Delhi Cantonment Railway Station -12 for loading guns and 12 for Russian Kraz towing vehicle. The gun weighs over 8 tonnes and the wheelbase just about narrowly fits on to the meter gauge rake. Today with broad gauge rakes, the wagons offer sufficient width to maneuver the guns.
The most crucial part of loading is to mount these guns and Krazes on to the MBFU. I watched in fascination how the most experienced driver, Havildar Kuriakose, drove the leading Kraz towing the gun. He drove on to the ramp and then straight through, over the wagons to the last-but-one wagon and halted in such a way that the gun was exactly adjusted in the well of the MBFU. The gun was unhooked and he drove his Kraz in to the well of the last MBFU. A slight wavering or error in judgement could have caused the unthinkable. It was a critical operation which only best of the specialist drivers can accomplish.
Tank drivers of Armoured Regiments too face similar predicaments driving onto the MBFU and sometimes end up in mishaps.
By nightfall, the train was formed with 24 MBFU, one first class coach, four sleeper coaches, a military kitchen car and seven wagons for carriage of ammunition and stores. Now it was an eternal wait at the station for ‘power’- a diesel engine – to tow the train. They had the crew – loco pilot, his assistant and guard ready, but no ‘power’. By midnight, an engine was made available after it had towed a passenger train. There were three halts enroute, each over six hours, all waiting for ‘power’ and after 36 hours, we were at Pokharan railway station.
The last military special train I travelled was while commanding the Regiment in 2002. Our Regiment was mobilised from its peace location in Devlali (Maharashtra, near Mumbai) on that year’s New Year Eve. The entire Indian Army had moved into their operational locations after the attack on the Indian Parliament building by terrorists believed to have come in from Pakistan. The Indian Railways ensured that our Regiment, like all the other units of the Indian Army, were mobilised to their operational locations at super-high priority in two days. The Military Special trains moved at speeds greater than that of many express trains and were accorded the highest priority.
After ten months, the move back to Devlali from Rajasthan was the opposite. An Army which did not even fire a single bullet, an army which did not fight a war had no priorities in anyone’s mind. Our Divisional Headquarters had entrusted me with an important and critical task two days prior to the move back of our Regiment. I was given a week to complete the task and fly back to Devlali on completion. I did not want to miss travelling in the Military Special, that too as the Commanding Officer. I burnt the midnight oil for the next two days, completed the task, handed it over to the Divisional Headquarters.
On the day of our train’s move from Jodhpur (Rajasthan), our soldiers loaded all the vehicles and equipment on the train. A diesel engine was connected but now the Railways had the ‘power’, but no crew. As many Military Special trains were run from Jodhpur taking the army back home, adequately rested crew was at premium. We waited for 24 hours for the train to commence its journey. Our train stopped at every possible station, even to give way to freight trains. Now we were the lowest priority in the eyes of the Indian Railways. The onward move executed in less than two days now took five days on the return leg.
After my premature retirement and move to Canada, I very much miss my passionate association with the Indian Railways. Now, even when I travel in India, it is mostly by air, due to time pressures. Gone are the days of those never ending train journeys. I can only recollect those days with a sense of loss and nostalgia.
For me, undoubtedly most comfortable evening home wear has always been the down to earth ‘Lungi’. It is extremely comfortable and is an all season wear. It is unisex – wearable by both men and women. It is easy to wear without any hassles of zips, buttons or laces. One got to just tie at the waist. Tying a Lungi at the waist is surely not any rocket science, but to ensure that it remains there is surely an art by itself. Lungi surely provides free movement for the lower limbs and also air circulation, especially ideal for the hot and humid climate of Kerala.
A Lungi is a cotton sheet about 2 meter in length and over a meter in breadth and is characterised by its plain, checkered, floral or window-curtain patterns. By design, surely one-size-fits-all, both males and females and surely does not have any caste, creed or religion. The only variation is that Muslims of Kerala wear it right to left, whereas others wear it left to right. It is very difficult for a normal eye to make out this subtle difference. Lungi is worn in India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Myanmar and Thailand. ‘Mundu’ is its white cousin and is worn mostly outdoors in Kerala- to church, family functions and even to office.
While serving in the Indian Army, I wore a Lungi to bed, even in remote border posts – at altitudes above 10,000 feet when the mercury dipped to nearly 30 degrees below the freezing mark. I wore it while serving in the North in Kashmir, in the West in the deserts of Rajasthan and in the humid jungles of Eastern India. It surely had no combat or camouflaged design or pattern as it was not an Army ‘issue’ item and surely did not figure in the ‘Dress Regulations for the Army.’
Once on my trip home on vacation from Sikkim, I called on Colonel Baby Mathew who was commanding an Artillery Regiment located near the airport from where I was to board the flight home. On reaching the main gate of his regiment, the sentry on guard saluted me smartly and said “Our CO (Commanding Officer) is waiting at his residence for your arrival” and he then gave directions to the driver about the route. On entering Colonel Mathew’s residence I heard his voice saying “Head straight to my bedroom.” There was Colonel Mathew, sitting on his bed, adorned in his favourite Lungi. He ordered me to change into my Lungi and join him for a hot lunch of Kappa (Kasava or Tapioca) and fish curry – a Kerala Christian favourite. While partaking the meal, Colonel Mathew said “I have placed my residence out of bounds for all ranks for the next 24 hours” – meaning no one to come near his house until I was there. Obviously the Commanding Officer did not want his command to see him and his friend in their Lungi.
In June 2002, I took over command of our Regiment in its operational location on the India-Pakistan border in Rajasthan. The Regiment was mobilised from its peace location in Devlali (Maharashtra, near Mumbai) on that year’s New Year Eve. The entire Indian Army had moved into their operational locations after the attack on the Indian Parliament building by terrorists believed to have come in from Pakistan. The Indian Railways ensured that our Regiment, like all the other units of the Indian Army, were transported to their operational locations at super-high priority in two days. The Military Special trains moved at speeds greater than that of many express trains and were accorded the highest priority.
The move back to Devlali from Rajasthan was the opposite. An Army which did not even fire a single bullet, an army which did not fight a war surely had no priorities in anyone’s mind. The Military Special trains stopped at every possible station, even to give way to the goods trains. Now we were the lowest priority in the eyes of the Indian Railways. The onward move executed in less than two days now was sure to take a week.
On the day of our train’s move from Jodhpur (Rajasthan), the soldiers loaded all the vehicles and equipment on the train. After accomplishing the task, the Subedar Major (Master Warrant Officer) Thangaswamy had a roll-call to ensure everyone was present and also to brief the soldiers about the return journey. As I looked out of my railway coach’s window, I saw the entire regiment standing. I had a brain wave – Why carry all the soldiers on the train? About a hundred of them is all what I require, mainly to ensure the security and safety of the train and the equipment. Why not the rest of the soldiers be send on leave as many had not met their families for a prolonged time due to the operational commitments? Also, less of a trouble for the chefs to cook meals on a running train and less of administrative issues.
I stepped out of my coach wearing my Lungi and a shirt and ordered Subedar Major Thangaswamy to only keep about a hundred soldiers and disperse the rest on leave for a week to rejoin at Devlali. Everyone’s face suddenly brightened up but with that I was christened ‘Lungi CO.’
After moving to Canada, on a warm and sunny summer morning, I was watering the garden wearing my all time favourite Lungi. There appeared our neighbour, Mr Win of Chinese descent and on seeing me wearing a colourful and comfortable costume enquired “Reji, what skirt are you wearing- looks really colourful. Sometimes it is a full-skirt, sometimes half-skirt and sometimes mini-skirt.” –That was it! I discarded my favourite Lungi forever.
It was a ritual in our home that everyone recited the Twenty-third Psalm at the end of the evening prayer and the same was recited at our church at the end of the Holy Mass. This Psalm is applicable to one and all, irrespective of one’s religion and it reaffirms one’s faith in their God. The Twenty-third Psalm begins with “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want”. In the Malayalam version which we recited as children, the “I shall not want” part was translated as “എനിക്കു മുട്ടുണ്ടാകുകയില്ല” (enikku muttundakukayilla), and I always looked at my knees after reciting it, as it literarily translated in any child’s mind as “I will not have my knees”.
God will open the door only if one knocks and hence the aspect of “I shall not want” in Psalm 23 is debatable. Without the ‘wants’ humanity would have never progressed and developed to its current stature. The modern version of the Psalm has put it more aptly as “The Lord is my shepherd; I lack nothing”. These ‘wants’ always tempted me to dream, about anything and everything I came across as a child, mostly to be rebuked by elders saying that I was wasting my time dreaming – even the act of dreaming was rationed in our childhood—‘Who can dream what and how much’ was somewhat a pre-decided issue!
As I grew up and came under the stewardship of Late Mr PT Cherian, our House Master at Sainik School, Amaravathinagar, Tamil Nadu, who always encouraged us to dream – to dream big – that too King Size. As I grew older I read the Wings of Fire by Dr APJ Abdul Kalam wherein he says that “Dream is not that which you see while sleeping it is something that does not let you sleep.” This was the predicament I always faced while dreaming that it delayed my falling asleep and the same continues to date.
Veteran Commander D Reginald was my companion to operate the public address system in the school under the guidance of Mr PT Cherian while studying in Grade 9 (1974). All the amplifiers, speakers, cables, etc were kept in Mr Cherian’s Physics Lab and on Sundays after lunch we both would go there to carry out regular maintenance. Once we were accompanied by our friend S Harikrishnan (currently Manager, State Bank of India), who was an accomplished singer. The idea was to fulfill Hari’s dream of listening to his voice duly recorded on the audio cassette recorder. Being Sunday afternoon, we knew that Mr Cherian will never be around as he always enjoyed his afternoon siesta and never ever wanted to be disturbed at that time and there would be no one to stop us from (mis)using the precious cassette recorder. We recorded Hari’s song and played back the recording. That was the first time he ever heard his own singing. Hari had the brightest and the biggest eyes amongst us and he was so excited that his eyes bulged out like search lights.
After accomplishing the mission Hari left and we were on to our maintenance tasks. Reginald was always a better dreamer than I was and continues to be so till date. Our discussion was about the possibility that one day we would be able to record what we see with the same ease like we recorded Hari’s voice. That dream has come true today and we have even gone much ahead that we are able to transmit the same across the globe in real-time. Remember that ‘What you dream today will in all likelihood become a reality tomorrow.’
We have encouraged our children to dream and the effect of it is mostly heard from the washroom. I always hear their monologues, dialogues, role-playing, singing, etc while they spend their time in the washroom – the most private time one ever gets. I was really scared of doing this while growing up on the fear of what others will think about me (mad?) and so I could never give expression to my dreams.
One must dream, that too dream unlimited. That is when one gets into a creative mood and comes out with ‘out of the box’ ideas. Imagine if Newton or Shakespeare or Ved Vyasa did not dream; the world would have been surely poorer. Some of our dreams may fructify in our life time like the video recording dream we had as children; some we would be able to implement ourselves as we grow up.
One such dream I always carried was that of the ‘Bara Khana’ (Party for the soldiers) in the regiment. One always saw the chefs overworked in the kitchen, many soldiers toiling it out for erecting the tents, making seating arrangements, organizing entertainment, serving food and drinks, etc. Many soldiers took it as a ‘punishment’ and not as a time to make merry. My dream was that all soldiers in the regiment should be free from all chores and commitments and be free to enjoy the party with their families and friends.
On return to our permanent location in Devlali after an year long operational deployment, Late Col Suresh Babu approached me with the idea of party for the entire unit with the families. That was when I gave my directions based on my dreams – everything should be contracted out – from tent pitching, decorations, entertainment, food preparation and service – each and everything and no soldier would toil for it. The only hitch which Col Babu projected was that the waiters of the contractors will not be familiar with the military protocols and hence may not serve the Commanding Officer first and so on. I was fine with it as I never had any ‘doubt’ that I was commanding the unit.
On the day of the party, there were round tables laid out with chairs for all officers, soldiers and their families to sit and the contracted entertainment troupe started off with their performances. Snacks and drinks were being served by the contractor’s waiters and each and everyone enjoyed the proceedings. At this time our chef came to me and said that it was the first party he attended. that too wearing his best clothes and thanked me immensely for arranging this. All the soldiers were unanimous that it was the first time they wholeheartedly enjoyed an evening, otherwise they would be running around and also closing down everything after the party. After the success of the first outsourced party, we decided that we would hold only two parties a year and would always be outsourced.
As one grows up, it would be feasible to implement one’s dreams, but many find it convenient to forget them then.
The schools reopen for the new session in Kerala after the summer vacation in June every year. The school opening is marked by the commencement of the monsoon rains and in the low-lying areas of Kottayam, there would invariably be floods and the schools are often closed at least for a fortnight thereafter.
Our father was the headmaster of a school in this area near Kumarakom and once I asked him “Why can’t you have an extended school session till April end and have summer vacation in May and June?”
“This idea was tried out unsuccessfully as the combination of extremely hot summer days and scarcity of drinking water posed major difficulties and hence the proposal was shelved,” he replied.
sThe low lying areas of Kottayam are a part of the North Kuttanad, known as the rice bowl of Kerala. This is perhaps the only region in the world where rice farming is done at about 2.5 meter below sea level. The paddy fields are reclaimed land from the backwaters. In case one embarks on a boat ride through the backwaters, one can observe that the paddy fields are at a much lower level than the water level of the backwaters. If you carefully observe the images above or below, you can differentiate the two levels.
Kuttanad meaning ‘low lying lands’ is one of the most fertile regions of Kerala, spread over the districts of Alappuzha and Kottayam, crisscrossed by rivers, canals and waterways. The region contains the low lying lands measuring about 25 kilometers East-West and 60 kilometers North-South on the West coast of Kerala. A major portion of this area lies 1 to 2.5 meters below the sea level. Kuttanad has 1,10,000 hectare area, of which 50 % is reclaimed and 88 % is under agriculture. The area is characterised by Dyke building in deep waters, land reclamation and maintenance and Rice-Fish rotation farming.
The dykes (bund) construction and maintenance are intricate tasks, for which an array of long and stout coconut poles are hammered deep enough into the lake bed in two rows, about two meters in width enveloping the entire area, It is then fenced with bamboo mats on either side. The channels of the bund are now filled to the desired height, first with sand, followed by twigs, interspersed with high quality clay dug from the bottom of the lake. Then water is pumped out and the land is prepared for rice cultivation.
The dykes are now mostly permanent ones built with granites and concrete. Only a few gaps are left to facilitate flowing in of water after the harvest. The gaps are filled prior to cultivation as mentioned above. In the earlier days, water was pushed out from the low lying areas manually using a waterwheel. Nowadays, the manual labour has been replaced by electric pumps.
During heavy monsoons, the flood waters may breach the bunds and inundate the paddy fields, causing heavy losses to the farmers.
The fresh water environment close to rice fields and the canals provide abundance of Pearl spots (Karimeen for which Kerala is well known for), fresh water giant prawns (attukonju) and freshwater catfish.
So much for the geography of Kuttanad and its peculiarities.
Let me now relate to a monsoon related necessity. It was customary for our father to gift all four of us with an umbrella, with our name inscribed on it, at the beginning of every school year. One either lost them or damaged them as the school year passed by. In the autumn of his life, he resumed the old habit and continued with the same gift to all his grand children.
In China, gifting your friend an umbrella means you want to end the relationship because umbrella sounds like San in Chinese, which means to separate. Giving a married couple an umbrella as a gift should be avoided in all cases, at least in China. The Chinese believe that if it is raining and you are worried he or she will get wet, it’s better for both of you to huddle under one umbrella until you reach your partner’s destination.
That brings me to a personal anecdote related to the gifting of umbrellas. A few weeks after assuming command of the unit in the operational area in Rajasthan, our Second-in-Command (2IC) Late Col Suresh Babu approached me and said “There are about 100 umbrellas lying unsold in the Regimental Canteen at Devlali, Maharashtra. I propose a 50% reduction sale for them.”
I realised with the unit in the operational area, it may not be feasible to execute the sale.
After analysing the loss being incurred by the canteen and the overall cost of the umbrellas, and taking a cue from my father, I said “Let the Regiment buy all the umbrellas from the Regimental fund and let them be gifted to all children of the unit at the beginning of the academic session.”
As in Kerala, in Devlali too, the monsoons pour down heavily coinciding with the school opening, but luckily there are no floods. The gift must have impressed all the families and children, back in Devlali as they had not yet met the new Commanding Officer.
In 2009, five years after handing over command, I received a call from Subedar Ravinder Singh. His son came on line and said “Sir, the umbrella you gifted to me at the time of taking over command of the unit has been preserved by me and was always a sign of encouragement for me. Thank you very much Sir and also for training all the children of our unit on computers. The introductory training to technology I received at that early age made me explore the world further and it has helped me immensely in my career. Thank you Sir.”
Most of your deeds and actions may not matter much to you, but it matters to the one who is in the receiving end. The resultant effect will always be as to how the receiver perceives it. And, if the recipient perceives it well, he or she will replicate it in later life, in one form or the other.
Good deeds generally have a chain reaction as do bad deeds. But in case of good deeds the chain is generally much longer than in the case of bad deeds.